Report “Bangladesh – Myanmar: The Danger of Forced Rohingya Repatriation”

Rohingya protesting against their repatriation Rohingya protesting against their repatriation © Reuters

The following article constitutes a presentation of the Report “Bangladesh – Myanmar: The Danger of Forced Rohingya Repatriation”, published by the International Crisis Group (Asia Briefing n. 153) on 12 November 2018.

Since 2011 in Myanmar, particularly in the Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States, a campaign of hate, dehumanization and persecution, allegedly amounting to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, has been perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims living in the country. As a result, almost 750.000 of these minorities have fled to Bangladesh and, ever since, placed in refugee camps near the border.

In October 2018, however, Bangladesh and Myanmar - under pressure from China, which has important economic interests in Myanmar and a major investor in Bangladesh – agreed on a repatriation deal, according to which, starting on 15 November 2018, several thousands of Rohingya refugees are to be returned to Myanmar.

The reason for such determination is twofold. On the one hand, Bangladesh seems worried about what it sees as an emerging consensus that most refugees are unlikely to return home, especially considering the low levels of funding for the humanitarian operation and the burden this situation places on Bangladesh. On the other hand, Myanmar hopes that a small number of returns would demonstrate to a sceptical world that it is ready to welcome Rohingya back, thereby shifting the focus away from the reasons why they originally left and weakening the basis for allegations of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

However, it is noteworthy that, by implementing this agreement, Bangladesh would violate its obligation under customary international law to ensure that any return of refugees is voluntary and safe. Indeed, while the two countries may consider that this repatriation could serve their respective interests, this process is, nevertheless, not voluntary and is likely to harm the Rohingya themselves, who would be returning to a situation from which people continue to flee.

In particular, forced return carries serious risks for security and stability on both sides of the border. On the one side, the refugee community in Bangladesh is strongly against repatriation and will do whatever it can to resist it. This will heighten tensions between refugees and security forces in the Bangladeshi camps. On the other side, a rushed repatriation could also inflame hostilities and provoke violence in the Rakhine State, where nationalists are opposed to any returns of Rohingya people to Myanmar, which they want to maintain “Muslim-free”. All of this will greatly complicate humanitarian operations and worsen conditions for those who are sent back.

In this scenario, the United Nations have already stressed that the move is premature. However, it is of utmost importance that the international community continues to firmly oppose forced Rohingya repatriation or, alternatively, press Myanmar to create conditions for voluntary repatriation. Indeed, one of the main concerns at the moment is that desperate refugees may attempt dangerous sea journeys across the Bay of Bengal, thereby generating wider regional implications, as it happened in 2015 during the maritime migration crisis.




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